Al-Ahram Weekly Online   6 - 12 January 2005
Issue No. 724
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875

Echoes of tension

The alleyways of Damshau Hashim may have quieted down, but the Muslim-Coptic clashes that took place there last week leave an indelible stain. Reem Nafie reports from the troubled village

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Are the recent Muslim-Chris tian clashes just a storm in a teacup?

There are no children playing in the alleyways of the Minya village of Damshau Hashim, 220 kilometres south of Cairo. By 6pm, all the men are home, and every single one of the small stores is closed. The unusual situation is the result of a curfew that has been imposed on the small village of 20,000 for the past week, ever since clashes between local Muslims and Coptic Christians resulted in the death of a Muslim student. Hundreds of policemen have been patrolling the streets since then, and all roads leading into the town are blocked.

The violence began when a rumour made the rounds alleging that Damshau Hashim resident Said Rizq and his brother wanted to transform their house into a church, and were encouraging their Coptic neighbours to pray there.

Soon thereafter, a mob made up of several hundred Muslims marched to the house, threw stones at it, and tried to enter the property by force. Just then, the local police arrived on the scene, and fired their guns in the air to disperse the crowd. Eighteen-year-old Muslim student Mohamed Mohsen Qassem was killed by one of the bullets; two Muslims and one Copt were injured; and 23 Muslims and Christians were arrested.

The two brothers had asked local authorities for permission to transform their house into a church to celebrate the upcoming 7 January Coptic Christmas mass. Their request was rejected on the basis that there were only 500 Copts living in Damshau Hashim, and that the village's two churches were sufficiently equipped to host the mass. When the brothers then chose to ignore the authorities' decision, and began urging local Copts to come pray in their house, the sparks began to fly.

When Al-Ahram Weekly visited Damshau Hashim a few days after the incident, the tension was palapable. According to Sayed, a government employee lounging at a local coffee shop at noon, "just because you can't build a new church does not mean you can turn your house into one."

His friends, all Muslims, seemed to agree. One of them said, "if we [Muslims] decided to do that, 99 per cent of Damshau Hashim would be mosques."

The village's Copts were much more hesitant to speak, with most choosing not to respond to the Weekly 's questions about what had happened. One of the few that did, school teacher Nadia Raaouf, said Copts in Damshau Hashim felt like a minority. "We know that there are far fewer of us than the Muslims here, but that does not mean that we do not have the right to build churches," she said. "We want to worship God too." According to Raaouf, converting a house into a church might have been pushing it, but the brothers "only meant well".

Raaouf's children, aged seven and 10, said that even though they had many Muslim friends at school, when an incident like this occurs, they felt alienated. "Some of the children aren't nice to me, so those of us who are Christian aren't nice to them either," the older son said.

It was not the first time Muslim-Christian tension had turned violent. Minya Governorate Press Officer Marzouq Ahmed told the Weekly that other people have died in Minya over the past year as a result of Christian-Muslim clashes. "In the south, people are hot-tempered," Ahmed said, "and small things can end up with someone being killed." And when it comes to Muslim-Coptic clashes, "we are very hot- tempered."

The timing of the Damshau Hashim violence seemed to echo a far more violent clash that occurred in the village of Al- Kosheh, 450 kilometres south of Cairo, on New Year's Eve 2000. That incident, which began with a petty quarrel between a Coptic shop owner and a Muslim customer, led to the death of 20 Copts and one Muslim, as well as the looting and burning of at least 50 houses, shops and warehouses. More than 40 Muslims and Copts were injured, and about 80 were arrested.

Ahmed said the problem in Damshau Hashim was a basic disagreement between the Coptic community and the government over how many churches Minya's Copts should have. "Copts feel they need more than the 20 churches scattered round the Minya Governorate," Ahmed said, "and the government says they don't."

In Damshau Hashim, he said, "the Copts are saying they don't have any churches, but they actually have two," Ahmed said, "so when they wanted to build a new church, the government refused."

Ahmed also faulted the Muslims for resorting to violence when they found out that a few Copts wanted to turn their house into a church. "They should have left the matter to the authorities," he said, "and it would have been resolved."

Minya University Sociology Professor Milad Murad, a Copt, said the Damshau Hashim incident was related to the Coptic-Muslim atmosphere in Egypt as a whole. He placed much of the blame for what happened on Minya's Copts becoming exceedingly anxious about events like last month's controversy over a priest's wife allegedly converting to Islam. Even though the woman, Wafaa Constantine, later denied intending to convert, saying she was "born a Copt and will live and die as one," the controversy resulted in nearly 10 days of protests at the Coptic Orthodox Cathedral in Abbasiya. Meanwhile, in Munqatin, a village just a few kilometres away from Damshau Hashim, 25 people were arrested and then released yesterday after Copts and Muslims got into a fight. And in Assiut, Copts recently complained that they did not have enough churches, and claimed that a government official was bribing young Copts in efforts to force them to convert. These relatively "small" incidents, Murad said, had a major effect on the psyche of Minya's Copts. "When people hear about things like that, they feel that they are being persecuted, even if they are far removed from the events themselves," he said. "When Copts in one place say they have no churches, violence erupts here in Minya over the same issues."

Another Minya University sociology professor, Ismail Gawdat, a Muslim, accused the Coptic Church of applying "pressure tactics to push the government into giving them what they want." He said Pope Shenouda III "went too far when he chose to go into seclusion to force the government to act on the priest's wife's issue."

In fact, there are those who claim that the Pope's move catalysed the government's decision to release 23 of the 34 protesters arrested during the Coptic Orthodox Cathedral demonstrations, allegedly for illegal rioting, resisting arrest, attacking security officials and damaging property. Although the remaining 11 have been remanded in custody for a further 15 days, the government has promised to review their cases before the 7 January Coptic Christmas.

A security official who spoke to the Weekly on condition of anonymity said authorities would be on high alert on 7 January. He predicted that Cairo's streets would be flooded with security officers, as would all southern villages. The curfew in Damshau Hashim, meanwhile, will probably remain in place until after the celebrations are over.

Two years ago, Coptic Christmas was declared an official national holiday -- a move many interpreted as a government attempt to improve the situation of Egypt's Coptic Christian community.

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